Being on the cusp of a new university term, especially the summer term, is a delicious, nervy business. For some students, there is excitement about what lies ahead – new ideas to encounter, people to come back to, unmet challenges to meet. Alongside, there is the inevitable trepidation: the unknown quantities of exams, fears of under-performance, self-doubt.
Although your lecturers’ concerns are different from yours, we also typically anticipate the arrival of the new term with a mixture of relief and apprehension. We bemoan the disappearance of research time, which always retreats more quickly than it feels it should. But we welcome the change of pace.
On the brink of this most unusual of terms, this all feels very different. The first day of term looms but the university does not appear to have noticed. Buildings lie empty. Grounds, designed to accommodate the bustle of students and staff, stand eerily quiet.
University education is predicated on the notion of choice. Students choose to attend. They choose their subject. It is a choice – one that it can be convenient to forget, but a choice nonetheless – to set oneself targets so hard that they can sometimes seem insuperable. You do this because you know that the rewards make the exertion worthwhile.
We, your lecturers, choose to guide you through this process. Teaching you is our vocation. We too once chose – and continue to choose – your subject. We know what it is to choose difficulty over ease: to toil, and sometimes to wonder whether we are able to emerge on the other side.
Sometimes we see you regularly; at other times, less so. But the relationship between university teacher and student is not determined by frequency of contact. It is a shifting, invisible, often unspoken bond that is felt by both parties, even as it fades in and out of everyday consciousness.
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Brief exchanges can linger in the memory with epigrammatic force: a word of criticism can wound for life; a gesture of encouragement can transform. The relationship affects and alters both parties. Long after the face-to-face contact has ceased, it persists in the intellectual make-up of both. Off-guard and unprompted, a chance association will bring it back: a reference to a book; the use of a specific word; exposure to a particular point of view.
Face-to-face contact is just one ingredient in the forging of this relationship, and perhaps it is not even the most important. It is certainly true that the opportunity to hear one another’s voices in real time, to read the expressions on one another’s faces and to feel the non-verbal reverberations as they pass through the room is a uniquely potent educational experience. It requires a peculiar form of concentration, one that is fuelled by a sense instinctively perceived by all concerned of the need to rise to the occasion.
Afterwards, sometimes long afterwards, snippets of what has passed will rerun in the mind – a shudder, recollecting a point badly made; a laugh, recalling anecdotes incidentally shared; a smile, knowing that something important was transacted.
It is hard to recreate this alchemy in virtual form. But it is not impossible. The student/lecturer relationship is in essence a pact founded on trust. The student trusts that their lecturer has chosen this path, has chosen to care and to put the student’s best interests first.
Without this trust, the student cannot rise to the occasion. In return, the lecturer trusts that the student chooses to be present. Chooses still – against all the odds, even with all that is going on – to study. Chooses, in the face of resistance, to keep pushing through each new intellectual challenge to reap the hard-won rewards of the pursuit. Without this trust, the lecturer cannot rise to the occasion.
Right now, we may not be able to meet face-to-face, but this need not alter the trust. Perhaps the effort required to safeguard the student/lecturer relationship will make us all the more attuned to what it can uniquely give us.
So, students, however hard it might be – and we know that for all of you, right now, it is hard; for some of you it is very hard – please trust that we will continue to be there for you. We will continue to work however best we can to help you unlock your potential. When we trust one another, we alter one another for the better, and just as our subject leaves its traces on us, we leave traces of this relationship on the subject we love.